The space behind the sofa in our den provided the perfect hiding place when Miss Miller, my kindergarten teacher, stopped by for her September home visit. I was caught off-guard by this “out-of-context” experience, trying to process competing feelings of excitement, apprehension, and bashfulness. While confident at school, I was transformed into a turtle-like schoolchild whose head popped out periodically to make sure she was aware of my presence. After all, she was on my turf.
Engaging families in the education of young children is nothing new. Education was always viewed as a partnership between parents and teachers, with teachers held in high regard by their families and parents valued for their contributions and ability to reinforce shared values and expectations. Home visits were part and parcel of the home-school connection a half-century ago in my youth, and parent-teacher conferences were sacrosanct throughout elementary years.
Yet the NIEER State of Preschool 2013 paints a somewhat different picture. The survey indicates a range of policies and practices for parental involvement across 53 state-funded pre-K programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Eight-five (85) percent require programs to provide some form of parent involvement activities, yet one in five programs does not require either parent conferences or home visits. Slightly more than half (51%) require programs to offer parenting support or training. Policies for 21% of programs allowed local jurisdictions to determine the type of parent involvement activities offered, reaffirming that a family’s zip code often shapes one’s early education opportunities.
Parent involvement was a cornerstone for Head Start from its inception and family engagement remains a key component. Regardless of the Head Start program model employed (center-based, home-based, combination option), parent engagement remains a program value and expectation. Head Start Policy Manual 70.2 was a mantra during my years with the program, defining the forms of parent participation including involvement in the decision-making process; engagement in the classroom as employees, volunteers, and observers; participation in and development of activities; and working with children in cooperation with Head Start staff. These elements have been expanded in current Head Start regulations (45 CFR section 1304.40), maintaining a provision for programs to offer at least two home visits annually. Other federally funded programs such as Early Head Start and Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) programs maintain active parent-provider engagement in program policy and design, and the defunct Even Start Family Literacy program was built upon a strong family-school relationship in its two-generation model. NAEYC featured home visiting in an article in Young Children last summer, and has a literature review on the topic as well.
The importance of strong parent-teacher relationships has never been questioned, yet with more parents participating in the workforce, engaging parents in meaningful ways appears to be more difficult. Home visits are no longer considered standard practice, due to scheduling challenges and safety concerns, and parent conferences conducted during regular program hours are often difficult for working parents to attend. This is particularly evident in kindergarten and the primary grades.
Though some wish to turn back the hands of time when stereotypical Ozzie and Harriet families were the perceived norm, policymakers and educators would be wise to support innovative policies and practices that adapt to the changing work-family-school context. Consideration should be given to new approaches such as workplace visits with the support of business owners, to provide paid release time for parent-teacher conferences and volunteering in one’s child’s classroom. Summer, evenings, and weekends also provide excellent times for teachers to exercise greater flexibility in connecting with parents, yet this would require a rethinking of the traditional school calendar and compensation schedules. Care must be taken to make these accommodations in a way that supports teachers and administrators, rather than creating a well-intended but burdensome add-on, and visits should not impinge on valuable time families spend together. It would be a shame for home visits to become a relic of the past.
Thinking back to Miss Miller’s home visit, by the time she was done I had fully emerged from my shell and was trying my best to thwart her escape to her next student’s home. She had toured my bedroom, surveyed my favorite toys and books, and gained a sense of my world. I’m sure she left with a better understanding of me within my environment, a stronger connection with my parents, and ideas for personalizing my formative education experience. I’m also sure my mother was relieved as Miss Miller drove away, in part knowing she had an ally when it came to coaching little Jimmy out of his shell and fostering his education.
–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO Senior Research Fellow